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House of Lords

Wednesday, 10th November 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

The Earl of Shaftesbury --Took the Oath.

Geneva Conference on Disarmament

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the cause of the failure to agree a work programme this year at the Geneva conference on disarmament; what has been the result; and what steps they are taking to resolve matters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the cause of failure has been the lack of consensus on what the conference should do. The result has been that negotiations on a fissile material cut off treaty--the universally agreed next step towards nuclear disarmament--have yet to begin. We remain determined to get such negotiations started and will continue to press for a work programme with this as its centrepiece.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, what can my noble friend say about the situation in which a whole year has passed with discussions taking place only upon the nature of the discussions which are to take place? As my noble friend has just said, there have been no discussions at all on the subject for which the conference has been set up. What plans have the Government made to ensure that that process does not continue? We have processes in this Chamber which could be copied. Motions can be tabled. Will the Government table their own Motion and press for it to be accepted or amended? Is there some procedure which will enable the present impasse to be broken?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the Government are doing everything they can to unblock the process in the conference on disarmament. Contrary to what is thought, we are very keen to reach agreement on the work programme in the conference on disarmament so that negotiations can finally start on the fissile material cut off treaty. We have shown some flexibility and we hope that others will do likewise so that the conference can get down to work without further delay when it resumes in January. We are using our best endeavours to ensure that our partners are fully aware of the urgency with which we view the necessity of this treaty.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has said; namely, that there is a stupefying lack of

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movement on this whole matter? Does she not agree that it is high time that one or more of those who aspire to be described as "leaders of the world" should depart from their stupefying silence on the question of nuclear warheads, 40,000 of which are stockpiled around the world and threaten not merely the peace of the world but the existence of the planet?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, all we can do is to encourage all parties to take a view similar to that taken by Her Majesty's Government. Your Lordships will know that persuasion in this field will be of the utmost importance. We are using all the skills available to us to persuade the parties of the merits of dealing with this matter expeditiously. We can bring them to water; we cannot necessarily force them to drink it.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, will my noble friend agree that there is a strong feeling among the non-nuclear powers that they are making all the concessions about non-proliferation with very little reciprocation from the nuclear powers? Is it not the case that a resolution from the United Nations first committee, tabled by the new agenda coalition and calling on the disarmament conference to proceed to a convention to reduce nuclear stocks, will be considered shortly by the General Assembly? Will the United Kingdom support that resolution and, if not, why not?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first, in response to the noble and learned Lord's question, great efforts have been made by Her Majesty's Government to lead by example. We have cut considerably our nuclear weapons and we hope that others will emulate us. Secondly, as happened last year, the Government have not felt able to support the New Agenda resolution. That resolution contained many proposals which we strongly support. We share the frustration of the countries which put it forward at the slow pace of progress towards nuclear disarmament. However, the resolution also included measures which we do not support, including some which were examined in detail in the Strategic Defence Review. It was concluded that they were incompatible with the maintenance of a credible minimum deterrent.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Baroness wisely used the word "others". Does she agree that negotiations for disarmament cannot be effective unless they have the consent of those who have the physical control of nuclear warheads? In that context, do Her Majesty's Government know who has physical control of the nuclear warheads formerly belonging to the Soviet Union?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that that is an important issue. We have information about the old Soviet position, now the Russian position. We are not able to give your Lordships specific details about those. All we can say

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is that we are working with our partners, including the Russians and Americans, in the hope that they will address the position with vigour.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, what steps have the Government taken to investigate the disturbing reports that Russia may be preparing to use nuclear weapons in Chechnya? Can the Minister say whether the Russian Government have offered or been asked for any guarantees that they will not do so, particularly in view of the fact that Russia is a member of the Conference on Disarmament?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have had no indication that Russia intends to use nuclear weapons in Chechnya. There is no evidence before this Government to indicate that that possibility is likely. As your Lordships' House will know, Her Majesty's Government have engaged in dialogue with the Russians in relation to Chechnya. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, together with the Foreign Secretary, have had discussions with and written letters to their counterparts. There is a deal of information about the way the Russians are addressing that issue. There is nothing in any of the communiques we have to date to indicate that the use of nuclear warheads or any missile of that nature is within the contemplation of the Russians.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, my noble friend will remember that before the Recess I suggested that the United Kingdom delegation to the Geneva conference might be assisted by the advice of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, and my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney. Bearing in mind the lack of success of the Geneva conference, would my noble friend reconsider the suggestion in the hope that the advice of those two eminent experts will be of use in furthering the cause that we all seek to achieve?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I would be the first to give full credit to the noble Lords who have been involved in these issues for many years--certainly many more than I have been privileged to even know about them. Her Majesty's Government are sensitive to the value of their advice and, I am sure, will give due consideration to the suggestion made by the noble Lord.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, will my noble friend simply ask the Government whether they are prepared to table a Motion that the subject will be considered without first going through the formality of a work programme? If they once start discussing the issues, perhaps we will be able to proceed with the business in hand. As has been made clear in this House, it is not a party matter and is, indeed, more urgent than many of us may be aware. In the circumstances, will the Government consider making

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such an attempt at a breakthrough; that is, a simple, straightforward decision to proceed with the business without first bothering with the work programme?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, perhaps I may say straightaway that we understand and share the frustration expressed by the noble Lord. The Government are looking energetically at all possible ways of breaking the impasse and moving the agenda forward. However, we must have a level of realism. In order to move the agenda forward, the relevant participants must engage in the process with us.

Mice Infestation: Local Authority Duties

2.46 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will require all local authorities to deal with infestations of mice and other vermin that cannot be dealt with by individual householders.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949, local authorities are required to keep their districts as far as possible free from rats and mice. They are also required to carry out such inspections as may be necessary for that purpose.

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